DUBAI – There was a moment of awkward silence as the young Emiratis walked into the room.
Dr. Nir Boms, a consultant with the Israel-is organization, had just finished telling the young Israeli social media influencers who had flown from Israel to Dubai a few hours earlier that Emiratis are more formal than Israelis and it may take a while for them to warm up.
But within five minutes, the buzz of conversation and laughter filled the room, as the young people felt an almost instant connection.
“Ma nishma? Shmi Emtiyaz. I’ve always been Western, and now I want to grow closer to my Eastern roots,” Emtiyaz Al Sharabi, 38, a British-born Emirati woman who teaches computer science in a high school, said. “I really want to visit Israel, and my real dream is to see a synagogue. I’ve been in a mosque, of course, and a church, but I’ve never seen a synagogue. Do you think you can bring me to one when I come to Israel?”
Her friend Nura al-Ali, 23, graduated the University of Sharjah a year ago and has been trying to find a job in international relations.
“It’s hard for me to just stay at home,” she said as she adjusted her shayla, the diaphanous headscarf that most Emirati women wear along with an abaya, a long dress. They will take off the shayla if there are only women present. “I’m so happy to be here and to meet Israelis on a personal level and to build bridges.”
Over and over throughout the four-day trip, the words “building bridges” was repeated. That is the goal of Israel-is – which organized the trip in coordination with the Strategic Affairs Ministry – an organization founded by former Israeli combat soldiers that tries to change Israel’s image abroad.
“When I traveled abroad after the army, I saw something that every Israeli who lives abroad and every Jew feels – and that is antisemitism and anti- Israel sentiment,” Eyal Biram, the founder and CEO of Israel-is told The Jerusalem Post. “I wanted to create a new public diplomacy and a way that young Israelis can speak about the country. If I can explain my story as an Israeli, it will affect decision-makers, so the idea of Israel-is is to create an impact on Israel’s global standing.”
The Dubai visit brought young Israeli social media influencers in various fields to meet their Emirati counterparts.
Together, the young Israelis have 15 million followers, “almost twice the population of Israel,” Biram said.
Because they are social media influencers, virtually every minute of the trip (and I do mean every minute) was documented and shared on various social media platforms.
The group met under the slogan of “Cousins Meetup” with a clever logo that incorporates the word “cousins” in Hebrew and Arabic. Often, Israelis use the word “cousins” as a pejorative term for their Arab neighbors. Using it in this context was not ironic, and the young people on both sides seemed truly excited to get to know one another.
One of the Emirati organizers, Saoud Alhosani, welcomed the Israeli guests at the opening session.
“I used to call the Israelis I know friends, but we really are cousins,” he said. “We are here to make a better future for the whole region. I really believe that God gave us the power to be here together. Welcome to your second home.”
One of the influencers, Stephane Legar, an Israeli singer and rapper, made a YouTube clip about being in Dubai.
Legar was recognized by many on the street, especially visiting Israeli tour groups who kept stopping him to take selfies.
“The idea is that people really talk and get to know each other here in Dubai and not only from afar,” Legar said. “I am happy to represent Israel and to give a different angle on things.”
Another participant, Ashager Araro, 30, is the co-founder of Beta, an Ethiopian-Israeli cultural center.
“This trip has been mind-changing,” she said. “All my perceptions about Islam and Arab countries, our relationship and how we, as people, can work together have changed and evolved. We created an actual connection and actual friendships that I’m sure are going to last.”
She said she felt especially strong connections with the Emirati women she met.
“I come from a religious family, and I asked them about being a strong woman in a religious world and their aspirations for the future.”
The Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and between Israel and Bahrain, were signed in September of last year and sparked a flood of Israelis eager to visit. The Israeli Tourism Ministry says that in the four months following the signing of the accords 130,000 Israelis visited Dubai. The visits stopped only when Israel shut down its airport in late January to control the spread of COVID-19, and are beginning to pick up again now that the airport is open.
Israel has longtime peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, but in both of those cases, Ilan Sztulman Starosta, the head of the Israeli Consulate in Dubai, told the Post, Israel fought several wars with them. With the UAE, he said, there was no war, which makes it easier to make peace.
We are also very similar,” he said. “If you look at Israel, what we did in 70 years and the Emirates did in 50 years – it’s amazing. If we learn from each other, we can do so much.”
THE EMIRATI government also backed the Cousins Meetup, giving it official sanction.
Saeed Al Nazari, the director-general of the Federal Youth Authority of the UAE, joined a youth circle where young people on both sides spoke of how to make the Abraham Accords more tangible.
“These meetings are a translation of what peace is meant to be and what peace can bring to the table,” Al Nazari said. “We saw that in the youth circle that gathered young Emiratis and young Israelis, we have lots of areas to explore and lots of areas to work on. We have a great vision, and we want to turn it into something tangible.”
Almost everyone we met said they want to visit Israel, and hope the borders will open soon. On the advice of a friend, I brought bags of Bamba with me and handed them out to Emiratis I met, who received them with excitement.
Israeli graffiti artist Or Bar El made a graffiti mural with the “Cousins” logo and a picture of an Israeli and an Emirati with their arms around each other. The mural was dedicated at a ceremony at the Crossroads of Civilization Museum, run by Ahmed Obaid AlMansoori, which has Jewish artifacts in its collection.
The mural was unveiled, and everyone sang “Hatikvah.” It will be hung above the main highway between Dubai and Sharjah, another emirate.
The trip also coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was marked in the UAE for the first time. There were two ceremonies held in Dubai, one by Israel-is at the Youth Hub.
“The path to peace is not only by looking at the future but also through honest discussion about the past,” Biram said at the ceremony. “This ceremony symbolizes the ability and the need of each side to understand the pain of the other and the place he comes from.”
At the same time, the local Jewish community of Dubai held a ceremony remembering three Muslim righteous gentiles. Canadian Ambassador to the UAE Marcy Grossman, who is Jewish, spoke of Si Kaddour Benghabrit, an Algerian who saved the lives of over 500 Jews. She grew emotional as she spoke of her father, who was a “hidden child” during World War II.
Rabbi Dr. Elie Abadie, the senior rabbi of the Jewish community of the Emirates, chanted an Arabic translation of the “El Malei Rahamim” prayer. As he chanted, the mosque next door began the Arab call to prayer.
Many Emiratis say they are excited to learn Hebrew, and some already have. Louai al-Sharif, a Saudi Arabian social media activist and content creator, who lives in Abu Dhabi, speaks fluent Hebrew and is a strong supporter of the Abraham Accords.
“I feel that we are living in the prophecy of Isaiah who said, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they should learn war no more.”